During my senior year of college as I was debating my next steps, I chose to begin a career in education. I taught for two years at a neighborhood elementary school in the South Bronx, and as everyone says, my first year of teaching was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I taught for two years and then made the decision to leave the classroom and take a position with an education non-profit in New York City.
Why did I leave the classroom? I wrestled with the answer to that question for many years, and it wasn’t until I began working with Accelerate Institute and seeing firsthand what principals should be doing in schools that I felt I could answer it. I left because I felt unsupported, isolated, under-appreciated, and under-developed. I had some incredible teachers (thank you, Ms. Redwood!) who supported me as a person and a professional, but I never received that support from my administration. The principal and assistant principals were not viewed as part of “our” team. I rarely saw my principal and when I did it was for one of the four formal evaluations I received during my two years on staff. All evaluations said I was “satisfactory” and the feedback, support, and opportunities for growth ended there.
I left because I felt unsupported, isolated, under-appreciated, and under-developed... What kind of principal might have kept me and so many other beginning teachers in the classroom longer?
The impact, both positive and negative, of teachers on student academic growth is unquestioned. However, my experience is far from unique. Research from the University of Pennsylvania found that about 20% of all public school teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching (other studies claim as many as 40-50%). Teacher retention rates are even lower in historically underserved communities.
So how can we increase teacher retention, in particular in schools serving under-resourced communities? How can we ensure that great teachers are standing in front of our kids every day closing the achievement gap?
According to research by Richard Ingersoll (University of Pennsylvania) “the way administration deals with both students and teachers has a ‘huge effect’ on teacher satisfaction.” So let’s talk about school principals. What characteristics and skills make a transformational school leader? What kind of principal might have kept me and so many other beginning teachers in the classroom longer? Accelerate Institute has used research, case studies, and almost 10 years of experience training and supporting high-achieving school leaders to identify the skills and characteristics – what we call the building blocks - of a transformational leader, a leader able to build high-performing and lasting teams.
1. “Get It”
Teaching in a historically underperforming and under-resourced school and neighborhood is challenging and complex. School leaders need to deeply understand all of these challenges and complexities. Although research from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis shows that racial achievement gaps seem to be narrowing, they are “doing so very slowly.” Racial achievement gaps also continue to be strongly correlated with socioeconomic disparities. This means that in addition to the institutionalized racism affecting our students and their families, students also face the daily challenges of growing up in poverty. School leaders need to understand what this means in order to create a constructive and aspirational environment for students and to support teachers in addressing these challenges in their classrooms. If principals do not have this awareness – or “get it” – teachers are left navigating these challenges on their own.
2. Strategic Thinking and Planning
Highly effective school leaders are goal-oriented with the ability to prioritize, while creating strong systems, structures, and processes within the school that are efficient and effective. School principals in many ways are like CEOs of their building: they are responsible for crafting a clear vision, establishing goals for their team, and then creating the schoolwide systems and structures teachers needs to be successful.
When teachers aren’t left guessing, they can concentrate on excelling in the classroom.
Principals need to effectively communicate to a wide variety of audiences (parents, students, staff, etc.) in both written and verbal formats. Principals are responsible for ensuring all constituents have a clear understanding of the school’s vision and goals as well as ongoing communication relevant to the school community. When teachers aren’t left guessing, they can concentrate on excelling in the classroom.
The most basic purpose of schools is to provide a safe space for learning to occur. In order for teachers to be successful they need expert instructional coaching to support their ongoing development. Principals should be the instructional experts in their school and therefore must possess a clear understanding of the learning standards and effective teaching practices to aid in teachers’ professional development.
As school leaders, principals must display professionalism and maturity by meeting all deadlines and exhibiting behavior, communication, and body language that is consistently respectful and positive. School leaders need to model the behaviors expected from staff. Principals set the tone for the culture of the school, and teachers deserve the respect of being treated like professionals.
When a principal knows her staff as individuals, she is able to leverage individual teachers’ strengths to create a stronger learning environment.
6. Relationship Building
Principals must build trust and loyalty amongst the entire staff; operate with candor and transparency; and leverage their strengths and emotional intelligence to achieve schoolwide goals. When a principal knows her staff as individuals, she is able to leverage individual teachers’ strengths to create a stronger learning environment for students as well as identify growth opportunities for teachers. She is also better able to anticipate challenges and proactively identify supports necessary to ensure her staff is successful. Finally, if a difficult conversation regarding performance or culture needs to happen between a principal and a teacher, that conversation is far more successful when there is already a relationship in place between the two.
7. Growth Mindset
Highly effective leaders are able to exhibit a degree of vulnerability to their staff by exhibiting self-awareness and openness in discussing their own strengths and weaknesses. This helps to not only establish trust with their team but to also model a growth mindset and the ability to implement action steps that lead to personal and professional development.
Leaders set the tone for how the rest of the staff will react to challenges. Principals face constant “fires” throughout the school day and year, but they cannot allow these challenges, no matter how severe, to distract them and knock them off track. Principals must instead persevere through challenges and keep focused on the original goal: student academic growth and development. As we already know, teaching is an incredibly challenging profession – when principals display resilience in difficult situations, it sets a strong example for how to effectively address these challenges for the whole staff.
Principals must stand up for beliefs... while keeping in mind the importance of communicating the rationale.
School leaders have the incredibly difficult job of leading a large team of adults who are responsible for the academic outcomes and emotional development of students. The position can be isolating and lonely, especially when it comes time to make large and potentially unpopular decisions that will impact the school community. Principals must stand up for beliefs and have the ability to make these critical decisions while keeping in mind the importance of communicating the rationale behind these decisions to teachers and staff. Principals must take note to balance this confidence with humility – seek out teachers’ voices, acknowledge individual and team successes, and be ready to own their mistakes. This balance of confidence and humility inspires trust in a leader and in the leader’s mission and vision for the school.
So how do we increase teacher retention and improve academic performance? We need principals who use these building blocks of transformational leadership as their foundation, building on the qualities that are their strengths and addressing their growth areas. Transformational school leaders create environments where students are held to high expectations and receive top notch academic support and development; a place where teachers feel respected, supported, and challenged; a place where I know I would have taught longer than two years.